Breakthroughs, Careers, Inspiration for Change How to Identify Your Passion (and Use It To Fuel Your Work) Written by: Kathy Caprino

I hear from hundreds of women each month asking a fascinating variety of career and work-life questions, hoping for some guidance. But one question emerges more frequently than any other, from women of all walks, levels, and capabilities.

The one question I hear more than any other is, “How can I figure out what my passion is?”

I had a powerful personal experience this week that I think exemplifies the answer to this question and I’d like to share it with you.

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend two important conferences in New York City that opened my eyes to new insights and learnings. The first conference was on business innovation and “disruption,” sponsored by WOBI, and the other was Claudia Chan’s S.H.E. Summit, a global women’s leadership and lifestyle event.  WOBI on Innovation focused on the many, multifaceted disruptions that are impacting business today, and the tremendous upside opportunities they present for those flexible and aware enough to both spot and react to them quickly.

The next day I attended the 3rd annual S.H.E. Summit which convened more than 60 thought leaders and partners igniting change and offering a global conversation and celebration of female potential and possibility.

Both conferences featured renowned experts, and both focused on exciting topics at the forefront of culture and business.

After the first day on innovation, my mind was full with new ways to think about business and career problems, how to turn these problems upside down and perceive and analyze them differently. I was inspired and motivated, by Andy Cohen, on Overcoming Barriers to Disruptive Thinking, and by Stephen Ritz, on Transformational Innovation. Ritz’s story is deeply inspirational – it reveals the transformation that’s possible when we challenge assumptions, think very differently, and refuse to accept the unacceptable. Ritz is a Bronx County science teacher leading a double revolution – of education and urban renewal. His world is New York City’s South Bronx, a place traditionally associated with gang activity, poverty and crime. As the leader of the Green Bronx Machine, Ritz is driving a movement that is changing people’s perceptions and transforming lives, based on his belief that students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. The best quote of the day for me was his, “I don’t want to accept what I cannot change. I want to change what I cannot accept.” (Now THAT is passion.)

The second day offered the same high level of educational and informational information and experiences – with fabulous speakers including Claudia Chan, Marlo Thomas, Sallie Krawcheck, Nigel Barker, Gary Barker, Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, and many more. I was engaged and upflited, and also had new flashes of insight and revelation about the current state of affairs for women around the world, and new solutions to improve that state.

But one thing grew very apparent to me throughout the two days’ experiences – my heart, spirit and mind were much more actively engaged by discussions, research and information that touched on global women’s growth and advancement.

Throughout the S.H.E. Summit, for example, I cried, I laughed, and felt deeply moved by the speakers’ experiences and often contrarian viewpoints on gender equality, violence against women, fostering diversity in corporate America, integrating men in the support of women, women’s economic independence, education, and more. At times, I wanted to jump up on stage and join the conversation myself, and (dare I say), add my different views and perspectives. I was “buzzing.”

The important lesson I was reminded of from this experience is that when you find yourself learning about an area in which you desperately want to help and simply can’t stop yourself — that’s your passion. And you are happiest in your work when you’re tapping into that passion – giving form to your life intentions in ways that help others (as Maria Nemeth explains in her great book The Energy of Money).

Based on my coaching and training work with hundreds of women around the globe who’ve found their passion, and are leveraging it in their work, here are the hallmarks of the experience when you’ve discovered your passion and are working in your sweet spot:

  • Despite all your concerns about how crashingly busy you are already in your life, you want to DO more to help this situation and are ready to act NOW
  • You’re enlivened by the people you meet who are involved in this cause or area, and they inspire you
  • You feel like a beginner – you realize you have many things to learn and can’t wait to learn them
  • This area of focus for you is deep, rich and inexhaustible – there is so much that needs to be done and explored
  • You feel more alive, valuable, and contributive when focused on these issues, and that makes you happier and more engaged personally and professionally
  • Being involved in this area helps you marry up everything you’ve ever cared about, and everything you are, and allows you to draw on your many talents, skills and capabilities in new, exciting ways
  • This area of focus gives your life meaning and purpose
  • You feel humbled at the enormity of the task ahead of you, but thrilled to be part of it
  • You feel more love and compassion in your heart, and more connected to the world around you

But many women say, “Kathy, I’m not sure what I’m passionate about. How do I discover that?”

To identify what you’re passionate about, dig deep and answer these questions:

  1. Look carefully at what you’re drawn to in life. What do you read, watch, listen to, follow?
  2. What agitates and upsets you in the world and compels you to DO something?
  3. Where are the people who inspire and uplift you? What are they focused on?
  4. If you could take one college level course or program for free on anything at all, what would it be?
  5. In what areas are you drawn to helping others?
  6. What “mess” in your life can be turned into a “message” for others?
  7. What skill or talent do you wish you had, that would be exciting to pursue?
  8. What area do you secretly fantasize about being involved in but feel foolish to say it out loud?
  9. If you knew you couldn’t fail and it would all work out beautifully (financially and otherwise), what would you try?
  10. What did you adore doing as a child that you’ve let slip through your fingertips?
  11. What (or who) holds you back most from pursuing what excites you most?

Before my current career, I lived through 18 years of a corporate life that was devoid of passion and purpose, and that led to depression, illness, and misery. I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that being lit up by your work is a far happier and more productive way to go.

Are you ready to identify your passion and get moving doing important work that fuels that passion?

(To build a happier, more rewarding career, visit the Amazing Career Project. And check out my latest Forbes post on how to pursue your passion without going broke.) 


16 thoughts on “How to Identify Your Passion (and Use It To Fuel Your Work)”

  1. Great reminder on a Friday! So what if you’re passionate about a lot of things? I believe they are all related. Thank you, Kathy!

  2. Thanks, Kim! Great that you’re passionate about a lot of things. I’d say, however, that to be as impactful and potent as possible in your career, it’s best to dig deeper and find the ONE thing that you’d regret more than anything else if you didn’t pursue and commit to it – and go for that. Thanks for a thought-provoking question.

  3. Kathy, I genuinely agree with you on every point but I feel there is a major problem with following my passion and I want to share that with you and hear your thoughts: it may disrupt my quality of life. Or more simply, it may leave me broke or at least unable to finance my life.

    When I say life I mean all parts of life: marriage, children, house, education of children, holidays, travels. All that requires a significant amount of money that, unfortunately, can nowadays be found only in stable corporate jobs (or, if you are very lucky, highly qualified but competitive niche areas).
    Had I entirely followed my passion, I wouldn’t have been able to finance my marriage, my children, house, and the quality of my holidays and travels. But thanks to my corporate job, I am not only able to finance that, I am also able to dedicate some spare time to my hobbies/passions although I don’t engage professionally in them.

    All I am trying to ask is: don’t you think there are many passions out there where, unless you are already well-off financially, you won’t be able to fully live all aspects of your life?

    I know many artists and small business entrepreneurs who are in broken relationships or still live with their parents. I am not saying all corporate managers are happily married and have huge villas, but at least they can offer some stability for their families… most freelancers I know cannot.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    P.S.: my passions are many, from music to travel to history. Even the most successful people I know who work in those areas earn less than half the salary that I earn.

  4. Dear Kathy,
    I had to laugh so wholehartedly when I read Your inspiring questions – wich mess could be a message…!!!!!! How great is this!?
    and thank You Kim, Your question is exactly mine!
    There is more than one longing within me, but I also think, its definitely one question, one theme, wich is Yours! And to think about this helps a lot and realy saves time and resources.
    Well, from Kathys questions it is now qite clear to me, what it is.
    But here I have a problem.
    Its not lack of energy, of willing or of power. Sometimes I wonder, if I do too much?
    Loving ones job is the one side. To express it in a way, where others can follow you and communicating your “theme” is the other side, often hard to learn. There is not too much about our activites if we are too emotional, others will think: “Well, my dear, its Your problem!” There is not too much benefit, if we are felt “overactive”, overwhelming others. To get the dose exactly right wich attracts and ACTIVATES others, that is, what You managed so brilliantly, Kathy!
    Well, I am sure, I will get there, too!
    Yours Rose

  5. Thanks so much for your insights, Rose. I believe I’m understanding your key point that there are often several dimensions to loving your work – including the personal and private experience and the public experience (communicating and sharing about it in a way that engenders support, enthusiasm, and collaboration). You’re right – these are not always easy to balance or manage effectively, but when you’re doing what you’re passionate about, you tend to find the way. All best in pursuing yours!

  6. Thanks for your heartfelt question, Colt. I’d love to address it at length here.

    The reality is this – it is a myth in our culture that you can’t do work that you’re passionate about, and make great money. We all have bought into that myth in the U.S., and we stick ferociously to it. I used to make a lot of money in my corporate life (I was a corporate VP), and stayed stuck for many years making the same excuses others do for staying in work I hated — because it was highly lucrative and it paved the way for other wonderful things in my life and family (travel, big, beautiful house, etc.). It was only when I’d had enough of work I hated, and decided I would no longer settle for spending my days and years in work that was meaningless and damaging to me, that things changed. When I finally declared to myself that “I can love my work, making a difference, AND make a great living,” that it happened.

    For me, it did disrupt my entire life to bring this about, and it took years, but I’m now earning more in my own consulting business and as a writer than I ever did in my Vice President role in corporate, and the possibilities for me and my family are so much greater. What I’ve done in this line of work has helped me and my family have wonderful experiences and opportunities, including international travel, study in Africa, exciting connections with amazing movers and shakers in the world, and much more. And I’m a role model to my children of doing work that I love rather than hate. In the end, I now feel that I’m making a difference and an impact, and that makes life so much brighter and more fulfilling.

    Another example – my husband is a world-renowned jazz percussionist who has dedicated his life to music and creativity. He has a new documentary film out called “Talking Sticks” about the role of music and creativity across many cultures. He never gave up on his passion, and has dedicated his life to it. There are many musicians and creatives who aren’t making a sufficient living, but thousands are.

    So, to answer your question –
    1) Yes, pursuing your passion can disrupt your life, but staying “safe” for many (like me) was a crippling path
    2) No, you don’t have to go broke doing work that is meaningful – many have made a fantastic living at work that is meaningful to them
    3) Yes, often the WAY many people approach incorporating their passions into their life doesn’t support them financially, but that is often about the approach that is not productive or viable
    4) Doing meaningful, passion-filled work doesn’t have to be your only livelihood – you can do other work simultaneously as well
    5) If you believe you can’t do work you’re passionate about because you won’t make enough money, than that will be your reality and you’ll be stuck in it. There are many ways to do work that is meaningful and are thousands of role models for doing this – but one needs to open one’s eyes to the possibility.

    So, what ways can you bring forward your passions (music, travel, history) into your life now? I’ve had clients who’ve started a blog about their historical travel, or taken a course at Julliard in music composition and begun to compose, or starting selling their artwork on Etsy, etc. – what can you do to ignite your life without your having to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” How can you bring your love of music, travel and history forward to enrich your life and that of your family? The happiest people on earth draw on their passions to inform and illuminate their lives.

    In the end, Colt, you need to ask yourself if you feel that your choices have made your life a very well-lived one. Will you have regrets at the end of it? Are you proud of the legacy that you’ll leave? Think about the long-run and the quality of your life experiences. If you’re happy with them, then you’re on a positive path. If not, then it’s time for change. Take my Career Path Self-Assessment to gain more clarity on where you’ve been and where you’d like to go. It’s not over – there’s plenty of time!

    For more about exactly how to bring your passions forward in your life, I’d suggest checking out my Amazing Career Project. Thanks for a powerful and thought-provoking question and all best wishes to you.

  7. Thanks, Stefan. I’m sorry for the challenges you’re facing, but I’d offer this suggestion – be very flexible and open about exactly how you want to pursue your passion. That’s the “essence” vs. “form” evaluation I talk about frequently in my coaching and training work (see my latest Forbes post on The Top 8 Reasons You’re Going Broke Pursuing Your Passion for more info). My husband is a jazz percussionist, composer and educator (as the article mentions) and he too has had to be very flexible and nimble over the years about how he is of service in the world. Don’t break yourself against what is – find new ways to use your passions. Hope that helps. All best.

  8. I just had a chance to read your article. Questions 6, 7, 9-11 stick out. I feel I was blessed with the ability to sew and create and have since started an embroidery business. I lost my mother to breast cancer (to do: I want to make a wall hanging quilt with pink ribbons embroidered on it to donate and hopefully help raise funds for breast cancer). My daughter is hearing impaired (to do: I have an idea to make a product for little ones who are deaf or blind to help them at an early age). Family members have had to be caregivers (to do: create a product to help them. Have already designed and produced a prototype of the product). I used to love to draw and make things as a child and have continued to make things through knitting, crocheting and sewing. What is holding me back in getting my business going? Lack of marketing skills. I know I need to step out of my “box” if I expect to get anywhere. I worked in the corporate world for many years. Last year I left that world and with a very supportive spouse, launched By The Sea Embroidery in SC. This is my “retirement” business. It is fun to see what can be done with creating new things and embroidering designs on them. I believe I found my passion but now it is a matter of turning that passion into a successful business.

  9. Hi Mary – I love to hear your dreams and plans. They’re beautiful, and come from the heart, in service to others. Kudos to you. About your wish for some marketing insights and guidance, I’d suggest exploring a women’s business development center near you, and joining an entrepreneurial support group or program that helps entrepreneurial women take their ventures to the next level. You don’t have to go it alone – there are tons of great programs that offer marketing guidance. Thanks for sharing, and all best wishes in this exciting new chapter.

  10. Hi Kathy,

    I really loved reading this because I’m nearing my, what my sister calls, “dirty thirties” and I am just terrified I have not found my passion life. My boyfriend, on the other hand, has found his and I am not ashamed to say I am a little bit jealous.

    After answering all of your question, I found 2 completely different passions and would like to know your opinion. All of the questions have to do with the same two subjects and I really don’t know how to choose between the two. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m extremely indecisive and this doesn’t help at all.

    Can you give me a few hints on how to figure out what’s best after answering the questions?

  11. Thanks for your question, Christina. I appreciate it. So here’s the deal – it’s more involved than people think, to determine what the best path is for your career. It involves “trying on” the professional identity of the direction (living the reality of it, not just reading about it), as well as a thorough, honest evaluation of what it will require of you, how it matches up with your talents and passions, how it fits with your values and life intentions, and much more. The best advice I can give is to take my 16-week Amazing Career Project video course. This course shares powerful insights and guidance about everything I’ve learned through my 18-year corporate career, my two career reinventions, and my career coaching with over 10,000 women in 10 years. That’s the best way to proceed to make sure that you’re taking all the steps necessary to identify your passion, and build a success career around it. Hope that helps. Thanks!

  12. Suppose you are still stuck. Nothing above has sparked anything nor generated a true internal desire.

  13. Thanks for sharing, Robert. That means you need some more help to get unstuck. You can’t do this alone. As Einstein so aptly shared, “We can’t solve a problem on the level of consciousness it was created.” There are a million resources and forms of career support out there in the world. I’d suggest as a start joining me for my free teleclass on September 17th on The Inner Game of Career Success. From my view, it’s an inner job first – to gain clarity on what you want to do, and also to overcome what are the key obstacles in the way of moving forward, because there are some. Here’s more about the class: Hope that helps! If not, keep trying other resources and forms of help that do speak to you. When we’re very stuck, it’s virtually always significant underlying factors that need to be identified and worked through.

  14. Hi these questions were very helpful. I am 26 years old preschool teacher. I still dream about becoming a professional photographer. With my income I can’t even afford a professional camera. Right now I am also pregnant so I am busy and just getting by with my current income. I was passionate about this job now that it has been 5 years I am dreaming of changing careers. Also photography classes are expensive…

  15. Hi Kathy,

    I sat on your first webinar this morning and enjoyed it very much. I, too, am in what I believe to be a stable, fairly lucrative corporate job with a defined pension plan that turns many others green (who has a defined pension plan anymore these days, they ask me), but I am dying to follow my dreams – my dreams of inspiring young women from around the world, especially those in Asia, Africa, & Latin America to stand up for their rights for education, for independence and the right to become meaningful contributors to their societies. I thought I’d combine this passion with one of the skills I enjoy – writing. I have already finished the first fiction book in a series and have started a blog. For this, I jump out of bed, brimming with ideas, tingling with anticipation, aspiring for the stars. My plan is to start publishing the books starting in Christmas this year. Having said all this, I have one deeply ingrained worry. I wonder if I will ever be able to support myself, feed myself, with merely writing? This keeps me up at night some days.

    Then I read something you wrote. “I believe now that nothing outside yourself is “secure” – the only secure thing in the world is your spirit, your mind, your talents, gifts and capabilities as they are applied in service of others.” Wise words indeed. Words to reflect. Words to live by. Many thanks for being such as amazing an inspiration.

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